(A German Tale)
Once upon a time in the northern plains of Germany, there was an enormous lake surrounded by cool swampland that bordered a forest. The forest surrounding the swampland shut out all the sunlight. Few ever visited this place, but hundreds of creatures inhabited it. They were beautiful and gentle, and when the moon rose and cast a silver light over the forest, these creatures came to life and began to dance.
The dancers were wood nymphs who lived in the trees during the day. For decades, these light, lovely beings enjoyed one another’s company, celebrating the beauty of this land. At night, they danced and sang, worshipping the sun and the moon.
As time passed, people began to appear. Soon those people began to chop down the trees, and the nightly gatherings became sad events. The nymphs wept over the loss of their hiding places. It wasn’t long before they learned a new kaiser had taken over the land. His army was building a town on the banks of the lake, and he had instructed the troops to drain the swamp and cut down all the trees, which would transform this wild, beautiful place.
The woods grew more and more bare, and the circle of dancers grew smaller, until one day an old warrior received permission from the kaiser to finish clearing the land.
The warrior went to work, cutting down more and more trees. He tilled the soil and stripped everything bare until only three trees remained standing.
The warrior was proud of himself. He had worked as hard as he knew how. The day was growing late, and when he looked at those last three trees — the tallest, thickest trees of all — he suddenly felt tired.
“I think I’ll just rest here for a while before I tackle these,” he said, and he wrapped himself in a thick blanket and curled up beside a fire. A moment later, he fell fast asleep.
When the warrior woke, he was amazed to see the moon was shining down on him and the sky dense with dazzling stars. He sat up and suddenly, beneath the thickest, tallest maple tree, he saw three beautiful maidens. Their eyes were filled with tears as they held each other, weeping.
The warrior rubbed his eyes. He was sure he was dreaming.
“Our time has come,” one of the maidens wept. “Soon this man will cut down all our sisters.”
“The nymphs of the lake will look for us, but we will all be gone,” the second maiden sighed.
“My sad sisters,” said the third, “we must never let our sisters of the lake be harmed. We are the last of our kind. When we’re gone, our line will be extinct, but that is how it must be.”
When the first maiden heard this, she let out a wail so long and loud, the warrior knew he was not dreaming. He leaned closer to hear her words.
“I wish that we nymphs might live on, and if I could appear in person before this warrior, I would beg him to bless us with life.”
The second maiden shook her head. “We are visible to men only at night. By day they see only the trees we inhabit.”
The warrior could not believe his ears, but he was beginning to understand what he was seeing and hearing.
“Forgive me,” he said, standing and stepping closer to the maidens, “did I hear you correctly, or am I dreaming? Are you the wood nymphs?”
The moment the maidens heard his voice, they vanished back inside their trees.
The warrior just stood there. Now he saw only the morning mist drifting up from the grass.
“I must have dreamed you,” he sighed, but a moment later he heard their voices, as clear as day, coming from the trees.
“You are not dreaming,” the maidens said. “You have seen the last of the wood nymphs from these mountains. But if you protect us and spare these trees, we will be ever grateful and we will not be lost.”
The sun began to rise over the top of the mountains, and the voices grew silent. The warrior heard their last sighs beneath the whoosh of morning wind. For a while he simply stood there, staring at those tall, stately trees.
His heart began to break, and looking around, he saw all that he had destroyed in this place. He imagined the wood nymphs who were lost, and he decided he would spend the rest of his life defending these trees.
And so he did. On his deathbed, he said to his sons, “Never sell this land, and never cut down those trees.”
For a time, his sons listened, and the fields near those trees thrived. At night, when no one was looking, the maidens danced in the moonlight. They remained ever hopeful that their forest would be resurrected and their friends would return.
But as the sons grew older, they knew they couldn’t take care of the land forever. They reluctantly decided to sell it. They eagerly told the new landowner the story of the wood nymphs, how they lit up the night with the dancing and their laughter. They cautioned him never to fell those last trees, for it would be the end of the wood nymphs.
Sadly, the new owner believed this was just a fable. He cut down those remaining trees, and the wood nymphs disappeared, never to dance in the moonlight again.